In mid-march this year, I found myself unable to function. When the kids went to school, I just crept into bed and if I was in Kilifi, I would most certainly have gone for a malaria test. I felt really sick. My husband sent me a little text, telling me he understood how hard this time of the year was for me. Then, I remembered – it was 19 years to the day when my father had passed on. Oddly, my dad’s death was not at the front of my mind but it was strange that my body ‘remembered’. Of course, the grief does not bite as much as it used to but sometimes it hurts like it is fresh. In fact, I don’t believe one ever ‘recovers’ from a death of one close to them – we just learn to cope.
In an article published in the Australian Journal of Critical Care in 2015, Dr Arizmendi and O’Connor, put it well and I plagiarize this opening paragraph of their paper titled ‘What is ‘normal’ in grief?’
There is no clear ‘getting over’ grief, just as we do not ‘get over’ our graduation, the birth of a child or our wedding. Of course, these examples are commonly positive events, but the death of a loved one is also an event and it continues to affect us for the rest of our lives. A loss of a loved one is typically experienced in waves of grief, felt deeply in our emotions, present in our thoughts and seen by others in our behaviour. Eventually, for most people, those waves do even out into ripples.
I know exactly what they meant.
My father, Mr. Mwangi Ihiga died on the 17th March 1997. He was only 52 years old – by any standards, a death that occurred way too early. I will not focus on what disease took him away, but on grief. In fact I use a photo taken of him while studying abroad, a few months after I was born. He was here in this cold, gray island where I am currently residing , that is the UK. It shows him at his best, studying, hopeful, building dreams for the wife and two children that he had left at home.
When my dad passed on in 1997, I was an adult, working and therefore the loss would not affect my schooling and way of life as it would if he had passed on when I was younger. Yet for many months, each time when I visited home and heard a car driving past on the road at the back of the house, my heart would literally jump. My whole being would get excited, anticipating daddy’s arrival. I would be doing something in the house and I would catch a whiff of my father’s smell – a comforting smell. I would turn, expecting him to be there. I sometimes wondered whether I was losing my mind. Here I was in my late 20’s, I had seen my father’s dead body, yet I kept reacting as though he would turn up at any time.
His clothes hung in his wardrobe for months. I asked my mother’s approval to place them in the drawers in her room. It took many months before I did this and it took years for mum to take them out of the drawers and give them away to people she thought would make good use of them.
When my dad died, I was entitled to 7 days bereavement leave at my place of work. When I returned to work, there were a lot of people saying, ‘Pole, pole’ (sorry sorry), with that pitiful look in their eyes.
I hated it.
Was I supposed to say ‘It’s Ok’?
Yet what else could people say? What else can you tell a grieving person than ‘sorry’?
Then, I was living alone and in the week following the burial, I found it impossible to sleep. I started taking this nice little green bottle of wine or cider, I think it was, called ‘Whisky Black’ or something like that. I have a low threshold for alcohol, so a single bottle gave me a peaceful sleep. I had bought about 10 bottles and when they ran out, I did not get more. I do believe that there is an ‘addiction gene’ or some such tendency – because it’s a wonder that I did not become an alcoholic.
Although I had been active in my church, I had just made a switch to a different one. I did not feel that I belonged to either groups. My faith was hard hit by the death and I really did not want to hear someone preaching to me about it. While some people are drawn to God when death happens, it had the opposite effect for me. I felt terribly let down by God – don’t ask too much about that. It just was like that.
I am no extrovert and during that time with the grief was so acute, I really did not have the energy to look out for people. Sometimes I would get into the house on Friday after work and lock myself indoors, leaving the house on Monday morning to go to work. I did not want to have to pretend to others that I was coping.
A friend called Patricia, came and lived with me for a while and that really helped. Another friend, Annete, would come and stay weekends in my house. These girls did not wait for me to look for them but came looking. But there were a few who were angry with me. I was told what my crime was through others…..
‘Why did she not call me when her father died?’
‘What friendship is this where you can’t tell me when something like this happens?’
‘Are we really friends after all?’
I understand them. There are people who will announce the death of a loved one on Facebook and people can get in touch. I just can’t do that. I just crawled into a tight little ball and stayed there till I felt better. I know I am no different from a lot of other people.
In most Kenyan homes, the days after a death, the family compound is full of people, mostly helping to prepare for the funeral. There will be songs and prayers deep into the night. Then when the funeral is done, everyone disappears. It amazes me how your social life shrinks then. At the point when you most need to talk about things, there is no one to talk to.
I watched my mother navigate her new role as widow. I did not realise the weight of that until I watched my mum. I noticed some friends shrink around her too. She was – as most widows are – blamed by some for my dad’s death. But my mother is a practicing Christian who forgives fully. She chose to focus on the positive energy of those who stood with her – she emerged a stronger, independent woman.
But what is the healthy way to grief?
Do people who publicly display their grief and mourning come up emotionally stronger than those who keep their grief covered? How do you know when you have crossed the line from ‘normal’ grief to ‘complicated’ grief as Dr Arizmendi and O’Connor put it in their paper?